Still Booming

Photo: Paula Lavista

The emos who hang out in Mexico City’s Insurgentes Circle, distant relations of our own kohl-eyed musical mopes, face constant harassment from corrupt police and local punks. Some of them have also been forced to contend with the intrusive questions of a handsome, weathered, impeccably dressed gentleman of 82 who occasionally likes to listen, uncomprehending, to their lingo. “They invent language all the time,” says Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s most prominent author, who still spends hours wandering the vast plazas and narrow alleys of his country’s capital. “It’s a language I, at times, cannot understand.”

Destiny and Desire is the 24th novel by Fuentes, one of the architects of the sixties’ “Latin American Boom” in literature (along with friends “Gabo” García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and 2010 Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa). The novel is a tracking shot of modern Mexico City as seen through the eyes of two ambitious frenemies, Josué and Jericó (Cain and Abel is the working archetype), caught in the swirl of dirty politics, narco-trafficking, and a burgeoning telecommunications monopoly. Its more surreal touches—potent symbolism, magic, long polemics, and disorienting leaps in time—bring to mind the best of Latin Boomer lit, including Fuentes’s own classic, The Death of Artemio Cruz, published in English in 1964. It also showcases Fuentes’s need to stay current in his ninth decade—as in the incongruous phrase “Hug it out, bitch,” which telegraphs Jericó’s mysterious international activities.

You can thank the author’s wife, Mexican journalist Silvia Lemus, for the disconcerting (though perfectly logical) Entourage reference; Fuentes has never seen the show. “That’s what my wife is here for,” he says. “She keeps me up on popular culture. I’m a telephone and fax man.” The only American TV he follows, avidly, is Mad Men. “It’s quite fascinating … the American version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.” His favorite character is Bert Cooper, “the boss who doesn’t wear shoes. He’s the only likable guy. The others are horrifying.”

Fuentes’s viewing habits make sense; during the sixties, he was an icon of both style and substance, a dapper leftist aristocrat openly defiant of the government yet firmly entrenched in its power structure. He spent his grade-school years in Washington, D.C., where his father worked for the Mexican embassy. Buenos Aires and Rio were among his family’s later diplomatic pit stops. Before divorcing his first wife, Mexican actress Rita Macedo, Fuentes had affairs with Jeanne Moreau and Jean Seberg (whom he turned into the title character of Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone) before settling down with Lemus. He was Mexico’s ambassador to France in the late seventies but resigned after the ex-president responsible for the 1968 student massacre got another government job, as ambassador to Spain.

Such a biopic-ready life, combined with a comfortable ego, makes excellent kindling for his detractors. In a 1988 pan of his work, a critic dismissed Fuentes as a “Guerrilla Dandy.” The Mexican magazine that published the review was run by Fuentes’s old friend, the poet Octavio Paz; Fuentes barely spoke to Paz again, and was conspicuously absent from his funeral in 1998. Most recently, in 2006, critic Ilan Stavans attacked the author’s “wasted talent.” Fuentes no longer reads criticism: “It interferes, and it’s only opinions.”

Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, and Paz have all won Nobel prizes—but not Fuentes. “I’m so happy that Mario got it,” he says, adding that he’s never thought about being snubbed. “And if I had, I wouldn’t tell you.” Fuentes does concede to wondering about posterity. For three decades, he has organized his fiction (novels and short stories) into a series of “cycles” he calls “The Age of Time.” He cooked up the idea during a dull appointment at Dartmouth in 1980. “I remember [the painter José] Orozco said, ‘Dartmouth is the white hell,’ and I felt myself in hell.” So he began to arrange all his work into an overarching structure “heavily influenced by ‘The Human Comedy’ ”—Balzac’s collection of novels documenting every aspect of nineteenth-century France.

Like time itself, the series is potentially infinite. Fuentes has published three more books in Spanish since Destiny and Desire came out in Mexico, in 2008, including a vampire novel, Vlad. He’s working on another bulky one, with Friedrich Nietzsche as the protagonist. “I have at least six titles in my general program that I haven’t written yet,” says Fuentes, who writes daily from 8 A.M. until 1 P.M. “My grandparents were German, so I inherited a Germanic strain of discipline.” The author spends half the year in relatively tranquil London. Of Mexico City he says, “It’s like relations with a woman. Sometimes you love her, sometimes you hate her … It’s an ugly city, it’s a vigorous city, it’s a magnificent city, a terrible city. The work is better in London, the experience in Mexico.”

Fuentes has had three children: a daughter, Cecilia, with Macedo, and two with Lemus, both of whom have died—Carlos, of hemophilia, at 25; Natasha, of mysterious causes, at 30. “It either paralyzes you, or you take these events into your soul and work with them,” he says. “I’ve been working with them … It’s the only way to make the loss into a gift for them and for yourself.”

Unlike his friend Vargas Llosa, who lost a Peruvian presidential bid in 1990, Fuentes has declined invitations to run for national office. But he remains Mexico’s go-to intellectual. He considers the country’s current center-right leadership no different from the PRI’s 71-year semi-dictatorship, finally overturned in 2000. The drug wars, he says, are terrible and largely built on American demand, though also exaggerated by our media. His politics have evolved from socialist to Old Left—he advocates an FDR-style “New Deal” for Mexico. What he doesn’t bemoan, though, is the decline of the Solzhenitsyn-style dissident intellectual. “Pablo Neruda used to say it was up to writers to say what people could not say,” Fuentes says. “But the civil society has evolved very much in Latin America—we are less needed now. And why should anyone listen to intellectuals? It’s ridiculous.”

Destiny and Desire
By Carlos Fuentes.
Random House. $27.

Still Booming